The cycling life of Noël Demeulenaere. "He made a few phone calls and the problem was solved"

18min reading time   by Tom Vandenbussche on 12 March 2024
A few sentences are not enough to describe the life of Noël Demeulenaere (85). Politician, businessman and cycling enthusiast at heart. But above all, a man who for four decades brought in numerous new cycling sponsors, gave work to hundreds of (former) cyclists and helped several race organisers out of trouble. Inform those who can know: "Noël was a generous man who had a huge heart for racing and liked to give young people the chance." A portrait.

When he was 10, Noël Demeulenaere, a son of a flax worker, became fascinated by Boudewijn Devos, a boy from Wielsbeke who races. Devos is a fine enthusiast who makes a habit of riding his bike to and from races, even if it is 50 km away. Little Noël accompanies him as often as he can. Influenced by Devos, he falls under the spell of cycling.

As a twenty-something in the 1960s, Demeulenaere supported another local rider, Julien Ghekiere from Sint-Eloois-Vijve. In everyday life, the Wielsbeke resident, who had meanwhile completed his Applied Economics studies at university, started working for Roger De Clerck from 1959, with whom he built up the Beaulieu textile company. For 45 years, he would continue to play an important role there.

Debut at Flandria-Beaulieu in 1972

In 1972, Demeulenaere took his first real steps in the cycling peloton at the age of 33, when Mars pulled out and the Flandria team was looking for a new co-sponsor. Demeulenaere arranges for Beaulieu to join, good for a capital injection of three million Belgian francs (€75,000, ed.), a lot of money at the time. It is the first time he has used his hobby to do business and it won't be the last time.

"I have done three things in my life: politics, business and sport," Demeulenaere told Bahamontes in 2014. "The more those three aspects could complement and fertilise each other, the better. Through sport, many doors opened for me. I made many contacts there that later served me well in the business world. And vice versa."

I have done three things in my life: politics, business and sport.
Noël Demeulenaere

Flandria-Beaulieu is growing into a world team with big names such as Jan Janssen, Joop Zoetemelk and, from 1 October, West Flanders neo pro Freddy Maertens. Demeulenaere has a crush on his fellow provincial rider, who has a fantastic career (two world titles, three times the green jersey in the Tour) but is not good with money and is therefore experiencing financially difficult times.

When Maertens runs aground financially and fiscally after his career ends, Demeulenaere, together with Beaulieu's tax experts, spends years trying to solve Maertens' problems and, with his connections, even gets him a job selling Assos clothing in Flanders. Maertens is still grateful to Demeulenaere for that.

In '40 + 40 = 70', the book about Demeulenaere's cycling life published in 2010, he even writes a full-page letter of thanks. "Mr Noël is a good man who has done a lot for cycling and certainly for me," Maertens now says. "He has received a lot of criticism over the years because he gave a bunch of riders a pro contract after they allegedly gave him money under the table. I don't believe any of that.

You know what I remember? That the number of sponsors Mr Noël brought into the cycling world is incredible. Because he was in the business world, he knew a lot of people. Moreover, he had the gift of convincing those people. In that respect, you can compare him a bit to Patrick Lefevere. But Mr Noël had even more relationships."

Maertens also remembers well a stage in Paris-Nice. "Mr Noël and his wife were waiting for me at the finish. I won the stage and gave the virctory flowers to his wife afterwards. Mr Noël was there in front of me. He was a huge cycling enthusiast." Especially at the end of his career and afterwards, Demeulenaere proved invaluable. Maertens: "I dare to say that he was one of the most important people in my life. And you don't forget people like that."

20 years of ASS

After the 1972 cycling season, it takes a while before Demeulenaere is once again directly involved in bringing sponsorship to cycling, but from 1979 onwards there is no stopping him. A modest anthology: Eurosoap, Europ Decor, Euroshop, Bosal, Sunair, VTM, BCE Snooker, Leaseplan, Marc Zeepcentrale, Hitachi, Isoglass, Robland, Collstrop, Assur Carpets, Industriebouw Willy Naessens, Ideal, Palmans, De Federale Verzekeringen, Moquette City... Demeulenaere has also been closely involved with top teams such as GB-MG, Lotto (with cosponsors Mobistar, Berryfloor, Adecco and ABX) and US Postal (with cosponsor Berryfloor) over the years.

He himself holds the fondest memories of the Belgian-Italian top team GB-MG, which saw the light of day in 1992. "With Cipollini, Ballerini, Museeuw, Baldato, Rebellin, Chioccioli and Tchmil, that was a super team," Demeulenaere recalls years later. "The team time trial we won at the 1994 Tour is one of the best memories of my career. I was in the follow car and saw our team train racing through the streets of Dunkirk. It was fantastic."

Most sponsors are introduced to cycling by Demeulenaere through a limited company with open accounts: ASS N.V. or Advertising and Sponsoring Service. ASS had to ensure that many potential investors did not turn their backs on cycling, which was too often the case until then due to the amateurish way of working.

ASS was founded in 1984 and remained strongly active in cycling until 2003. During that period, Demeulenaere managed to get 320 riders work, together accounting for over 600 victories. Christophe Sercu, now team manager of Team Flanders-Baloise and sporting director of the Six Days of Ghent, worked for Demeulenaere at ASS for eight years. The son of former track legend Patrick has an economics degree and will become general manager at ASS.

ASS was the forerunner of what every pro team has now. It was pretty much the legal vehicle of a team where Noël used his entire network to attract as many sponsors to cycling as possible.
Christophe Sercu

"First of one cycling team, but over time several teams became part of our structure," Sercu says. "Actually, I was already doing the job I am doing now, although everything has evolved a lot in those 30 years. Emails and mobile phones didn't exist yet. A rider's contract then counted 2.5 pages, while now there are 12. Like society, it has all become much more complex. But ASS was the forerunner of what every pro team has now. It was pretty much the legal vehicle of a team where Noël used his entire network to attract as many sponsors to cycling as possible."

Sercu looks back fondly on his time at ASS. "I was 24 years old, had worked for a year in Germany for the Bremen Six Days and was already working for Ghent Six Days, but you always need to get the chance from one person. I am very grateful to Noël for giving me that chance. We met at a time when he was looking for someone he wanted to work with, someone with an economic background who knew the cycling environment. I accepted his proposal, but not with the thought that 31 years later I would still be doing the same job."

Fellow villager Niko Eeckhout

Demeulenaere was mayor of Wielsbeke from 1983 to 1994. He then remained active as chairman of the Public Centre for Social Welfare in his village for 12 years. One rider who holds a special place in the life of the resident of Wielsbeke during that period is a talented fellow villager. His name: Niko Eeckhout. The two have known each other for a long time, as Eeckhout's mum was a councillor in Wielsbeke when Demeulenaere was in charge there.

With the amateurs I won a lot of big races, but I still had to rely on relationships. It was Noël who made sure I became a trainee in 1992 and a pro at Collstrop in 1993.
Niko Eeckhout

"I always had a different bond with Noël than other riders," says Eeckhout. "He was mayor of the village where I lived and is also my sister's father-in-law. In the early 1990s, we lived in a different era. Performance alone was not sufficient in the race. Relationships, on the other hand, were an added value.

A team like Topsport Vlaanderen did not yet exist. A maximum of two or three riders per year could become neoprofessionals in Belgium. With the amateurs (now elite without a contract, ed.) I won a lot of big races, but I still had to rely on relationships. It was Noël who made sure I became a trainee in 1992 and a pro at Collstrop in 1993."

As a neo pro, Eeckhout immediately won eight races. "So I was competent, while a lot of other riders needed Noël when things were not going so well on the sporting front. This gave him the name of patron. Noel could help someone get a job as a professional cyclist.

These were different times than now. Back then, many things were solved with a phone call or relationships. Noel was someone who could give certain people, who for whatever reason had suffered setbacks or had been thanked somewhere for services rendered, a second chance. There were even a lot of big names among them: Gert-Jan Theunisse, Adrie van der Poel, Eric Van Lancker..."

For two decades, Paul De Baeremaeker, now 81, headed smaller professional teams such as TeVe Blad, La William, Assur Carpets, Willy Naessens, Palmans, Collstrop, Ipso and Flanders. He too regularly called on Demeulenaere. "Noël was a true cycling enthusiast who meant well by the sport. He liked everything that was racing. He helped a lot of teams to get contracts. He often helped me out too. If I was short of a sponsor, I could turn to him. In the 1990s, for example, he put on Willy Naessens' company, among others."

VIP driver Roger De Vlaeminck

Sport opens all doors, Demeulenaere let slip several times over the years. "When you visit customers, a chat about the race is quickly done and the ice is broken. Once, at Beaulieu, we sat at the table for hours with the top of the brewery Stella. At the end we talked about the race and the big boss of Stella suddenly told us that he had one dream: one day to follow Paris-Roubaix in Roger De Vlaeminck's car. Coincidentally, that race took place the following Sunday. The man was overjoyed. It's a simple anecdote, but it does immediately show the importance of cycling sponsorship."

De Vlaeminck remembers it as if it were yesterday. "I did everything for Noël. I’ll never meet someone like him again. He often invited business associates to his favourite restaurant, 't Houtvuur in Waregem. I had to join him at the table to talk to those people about the race. That was my job. A fantastic job. It was an incredible period with Noël by my side. I would like to relive it so much, but I'm afraid it won't happen again."

After ending his career in 1984, De Vlaeminck became Demeulenaere's private and VIP driver. "I had fun with Roger," Demeulenaere later recalled. "He has always been an enfant terrible, mainly because he always says what he thinks. I like that." The respect is mutual. De Vlaeminck: "In my eyes, Noël is the best human being in the world. I can't say a bad word about him. He was a sensitive person, just like me. He was then also someone who accepted a less talented rider into one of his teams anyway."

Demeulenaere and De Vlaeminck experience unforgettable times. "For years I had to take Noël regularly to Germany, 300 to 400 km away. There, I had to wait in the car or eat something in a restaurant while he was meeting. I also often drove him to Switzerland. We went together to Mario Cipollini's wedding in Italy, where we rushed to get a bouquet of flowers from a local priest.

And every year in July, we rode together as far as Wevelgem, took the plane there and followed two or three stages of the Tour de France. On the plane, I looked after his business associates. One of those times I had to take a megaphone with me, only it turned out on the plane that I had forgotten it in my car. To that Noël said casually: later you can fly back to Wevelgem with the pilot to pick it up. (grins)

By the way, did you know that Fons De Wolf has been angry with me for 30 years because of Noël? Fons once had to come to his office while I waited in another room. Fons was looking for a team and Noël would take care of it, he assured him. But when Fons had left, Noël told me he did not want him in the squad, only I had to tell him. Never again did Fons speak to me. He is obviously angry with me, but I am not angry with him."

40 minutes on the phone for Andrei Tchmil

Demeulenaere also plays an important role in the career of Andrei Tchmil, who grew up in the former Soviet Union and later became a naturalised Belgian. In 1994, Tchmil won a legendary Paris-Roubaix after a heroic duel with Johan Museeuw. Later, victories in Milan-San Remo and the Tour of Flanders also followed.

"My very first meeting with Monsieur Noël was at the World Championship in Stuttgart in 1991," Tchmil remembers very well. "Just before, I had ridden a few races in Italy and signed a contract for 1992 with MG. That team rode a lot of races in Belgium and since I wanted to race more often in that country, it was an interesting team for me. In Stuttgart, I rode to the start and suddenly saw a man walking.

I saw it wasn't a team manager or a carer. He was wearing a hat. At first I thought it was a tourist, but suddenly I saw it was Monsieur Noël. I knew who he was, but did not yet know him personally. I greeted him, after which he shouted that he wanted to say something to me. Do you want to come ride with us next year? he asked. I replied that I had just signed with MG. To that, Monsieur Noël said: welcome to the team. (short silence)

You know, for me that was a very special moment, because GB was a Belgian company (supermarket chain, ed.). It turned out to be the beginning of my career as a classical rider in Belgium, a period that gave me so much beauty. MG was an Italian team that was doing well, but when GB joined thanks to Noël, it became a world-class team. In my eyes, GB-MG was the first cycling team with international allure.

Not like PDM or Panasonic, which had mainly Dutch riders, but a team with a Mexican (Miguel Arroyo, ed.), a Moldavian (Tchmil himself, ed.), two Poles (Joachim Halupczok and Zenon Jaskula, ed.), French, Italians, Belgians... GB-MG was also the start of the career of the most important Belgian team leader of the past decades, Patrick Lefevere. So we are not talking about the little ones here. GB-MG has opened new roads for many future top teams."

During his time at Lotto, from 1994 to 2002, Tchmil even lived for a time in the centre of Wielsbeke, Noël Demeulenaere's village. No coincidence, as it turns out. "I spent countless hours in his office, where you could always find him. I no longer know the name of the village (Sint-Eloois-Vijve, ed.), but I would still find my way there blindfolded now, 30 years later.

If I needed Monsieur Noël, he was there for me. I remember very well that in my early days in Belgium I once needed a visa. It was a complicated procedure to get it in order and after four months I was still waiting for it. We were leaving with the team on training camp and the first cycling races of the new season were coming up.

Then it was time for the stopgap solution. Read: go to the town hall and speak to Monsieur Noël. After I explained to him the situation I was in, he made a few phone calls. After 40 minutes, the problem was solved. The Internet did not yet exist, but the very same day a fax with the necessary papers arrived at the town hall. Et voilà, it was in order. I was able to race. Thanks to Monsieur Noël."

SOS Gent-Wevelgem

Demeulenaere helps countless riders out of trouble, but it doesn't stop there. When Gent-Wevelgem experienced difficult times in the mid-1990s, the organising club Het Vliegend Wiel could count on him. "After UCI president Hein Verbruggen announced at one point that we would not belong to the new World Cup, the distance of Gent-Wevelgem was still allowed to be 200 km and we were completely squashed between the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix on Wednesdays," explained then-president Luc Gheysens.

"You can see the result very well on our list of honours between 1989 and 2005, with winners such as Gerrit Solleveld, Herman Frison, Wilfried Peeters, Lars Michaelsen, Philippe Gaumont and Geert Van Bondt. The latter rode in the front with Johan Museeuw and his teammate Peter Van Petegem. Van Bondt was allowed to win. With all due respect to that boy, I didn't want to go to the reception afterwards.

They were difficult years, especially when Het Nieuwsblad announced its withdrawal in 1995. In a few months I then had to save the furniture, fortunately with help from Noël and Christophe Sercu.
Luc Gheysens

They were difficult years, especially when Het Nieuwsblad announced its withdrawal in 1995. In a few months I then had to save the furniture, fortunately with help from Noël and Christophe Sercu. In the following years too, thanks to his close contacts with a lot of teams, Noël made sure we had the best possible field of participants at the start each time."

Anno 2024, Gent-Wevelgem is a big name in cycling. Gheysens: "In 2005 former Tour boss Jean-Marie Leblanc, with whom I had a good contact, made sure we could join the new ProTour. Now, another many years later, we are part of Flanders Classics and you just have to look at the list of honours (including Tom Boonen, Oscar Freire, Peter Sagan, Greg Van Avermaet, Mads Pedersen and Wout van Aert, ed.). We owe that in part to Noël and Christophe also did a lot to save our race at the time." Sercu: "Noël may not have saved Gent-Wevelgem, but at least he helped it out seriously. At the moment when people were really struggling, he gave the right push for survival. By the way, Gent-Wevelgem was not the only race Noël sponsored or for which he brought in sponsors, but it is the most famous example."

The Public Centre for Social Welfare of drivers

For decades, Demeulenaere constantly receives people in his office in Sint-Eloois-Vijve. This social attitude, not being able to say no and wanting to help everyone, he himself calls a disease several times. At one point, it even earned him the honorary title 'PCSW of the drivers'. This is not unjustified, because at one point, more than a hundred riders in the pro peloton, divided among different teams, owed their contracts to Demeulenaere.

Eeckhout: "When Noël worked as mayor of Wielsbeke, his waiting room in Sint-Eloois-Vijve was exactly like a doctor's room, I heard recently. But not with sick patients, but with cyclists. And especially at one particular period of the year, when a lot of riders were looking for a team for the following season."

When Noël worked as mayor of Wielsbeke, his waiting room in Sint-Eloois-Vijve was exactly like a doctor's room, I heard recently. But not with sick patients, but with cyclists.
Niko Eeckhout

Andrei Tchmil looks at Demeulenaere's nickname from a slightly different angle. "All of Belgium can be grateful to him. I remember very well some discussions between team managers about the future of their team. Each time the conclusion was the same: if there was a problem with sponsorship, you had to ask Monsieur Noël for help. Invariably, he had a solution ready. But he was not Mother Teresa. That would be to say he helped everyone. Monsieur Noël was different. He helped many people, but only those who deserved it: people who were in trouble and people who wanted to achieve success instead of lying in their lazy chairs. Moreover, he did not just have an eye for the life of an active cyclist. He knew that after life in the limelight, a life in oblivion also followed. Even then, Monsieur Noël was there for us. After a cycling career, he also helped people find work. That was a beautiful part of his character."

Life wisdom

In 2005, Demeulenaere called it quits at Beaulieu. During that period, he came into contact with the courts several times for investigations into financial malpractice and corruption. In the late 2000s, Demeulenaere, then in his early seventies, also put his activities in cycling on hold. "I think Noël suffered a few disillusionments, which finaly caused him to withdraw," Eeckhout says. "He always meant well, but it was also taken advantage of. I can only emphasise that Noël was a very competent person."

Today the sport of cycling looks completely different from 20 or 30 years ago, but even in this era, Eeckhout says Demeulenaere would pull his weight. But who is Demeulenaere really? "Outlining Noël as a person in a few sentences is not easy," thinks Christophe Sercu. Andrei Tchmil nods. "It takes many, many words to describe this person."

Noël was a generous man who had a huge heart for the course and liked to give young people a chance.
Christophe Sercu

Sercu: "Noël was a generous man who had a huge heart for the course and liked to give young people a chance. He was hugely socially sensitive. And was a hard worker. What he achieved in business was phenomenal. I learned an enormous amount from him as a young twenty-something, mainly in terms of: how is society, life and business? Giving concrete examples of this is difficult, but simply put, the bottom line is that certain laws that existed 300 years ago will still exist in 200 years. Man's environment has changed, but human traits and characteristics have not."

Luc Gheysens is also full of praise for Demeulenaere. "He has done a lot for cycling," the former organiser of Gent-Wevelgem stressed. "Noël will undoubtedly have got in the way of some people, but that's the way it goes in life. (grins) If you are too good, you get blown away."

Sercu cites another fine example. "I myself was tougher and more principled than Noël. I remember him saying at one point: Christophe, you need to become a bit milder, but rest assured, that this will come with age. Well, we are now 30 years later and I have to admit that I have effectively become a bit milder. Noël has taught me an enormous amount of life wisdom."

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